What are all the malapropisms in Romeo and Juliet?

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hoskinsp eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A malapropism is the incorrect use of a word in place of one that sounds phonetically similar.  For example, “A doctor gave me an anecdote.”  In this instance, “anecdote” is mistakenly used for “antidote.”   Common malapropisms are “electric—eclectic,” “obtuse—abstruse,” “home—hone,” and “behest—beset.”  Often humorous, malapropisms in literature can either convey narrative confusion or can serve as a characterizing device to show the ignorance or wit of a particular character.

Touted as one of the most clever word smiths in the English language, William Shakespeare is known for his play on words, puns, and dialogic jargon.  Thus, it is no surprise that malapropisms often appear in his plays.  In the romantic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, there are several malapropisms that are absurd and humorous, that not only provide comedic relief but present insights into character natures.

  • “Oh, he’s the courageous / captain of compliments” (II. iv. 19-20).  In this malapropism that also functions as an alliteration, the word “compliments” is arguably misused for the word “complements.”  This is evidenced by the string of “complements” or additional attributes that the Prince of Cats possesses.
  • “If you be he, sir, I desire some confidence with you” (II. iv. 64).  Here, the Nurse wants Romeo to be a “confidant,” which is a trusted friend to discuss private matters.  The malapropism is confidence for confidant.  In addition, it has been noted that the malapropism could be confidence for conference.  Regardless, confidence is still the wrong word choice. 
  • “She will indite him to some supper” (II. iv. 65). In this line spoken by Benvolio, the young man misuses “indite” for “invite.”  Indite is the writing of a sonnet or composition, suggesting Shakespeare is not only poking fun at the Nurse’s request, but poking fun at his own craft.
  • “But, I’ll warrant you, when I say so, she looks as pale as any clout in the versal world” (II. iv. 101-102).  Here, the nurse mistakenly uses “versal” for “universal,” which is not only a humorous error, but is a pun on the “versal world,” meaning the world of play writing.
  •  “No, I know it begins with some other letter, and she / hath the prettiest sententious of it” (II. iv. 106-107). Again, the Nurse uses a malapropism for the word “sententious.”  In this section, the Nurse is commenting on the spelling of Romeo’s name and she uses “sententious” instead of “sentences.”  The fact that the Nurse is the most frequent user of malapropisms conveys her as a comedic, and somewhat ignorant character.
sylviabe eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Malapropisms are defined by the incorrect use of a word that sounds similar to the one intended, usually to an unknown comedic or ridiculous effect. In Romeo and Juliet, the nurse is the character most guilty of using the wrong word. In Act 2, scene 4, lines 132-133, Nurse says “confidence” when she means “conference”; requesting of Romeo, “...I desire some confidence with you.” Benvolio, following in line 134, pokes fun at the Nurse’s word choice, saying “endite” instead of “invite.” Later in the same act and scene, the nurse again uses the wrong word, saying “sententious” instead of “sentences” in line 215. The nurse’s misspeaking is presumably intended to highlight her difference of status compared to the nobility she serves and is interacting with, namely Romeo and Juliet in these cases. It’s comedic effect is derived from her trying to sound more educated, but actually revealing her lack of knowledge.